Gen. James Amos visits with Marines at Forward Operating Base Sabit Qudam, Sangin, Afghanistan, on Dec. 25. (Sgt. Mallory S. VanderSchans / Marine Corps)
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Severe budget cuts are coming and will require the Marine Corps to "cut into bone" as officials are forced to make painful decisions in the months and years ahead, the service's top general warned troops and their families in a letter distributed throughout the force this weekend.
With sequestration in effect, the Marine Corps faces a shortfall of about $1.4 billion through the remainder of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, and approximately $2 billion annually through 2022, according to Gen. Jim Amos, the commandant.
Though thin on specifics, his letter indicates deep concern about the effect these cutbacks will have on the Corps' active-duty and Reserve personnel, their families and the 20,000 civilians whom the service employs throughout the U.S. and around the world.
"We are already a lean and frugal service," Amos wrote, "thus every reduction that we make from this point forward will cut into bone — we are beyond muscle."
Combat units deployed to Afghanistan and those preparing to go will have the required staffing, training and equipment, according to Amos' letter.
For units deploying elsewhere, "we will do our best" to ensure they're adequately resourced, he wrote.
Today, approximately 6,000 Marines remain in Afghanistan, down from a high of 20,000 after President Obama ordered a surge of forces there in 2009.
As the Corps' winds down its role there, officials are shifting focus to the Asia-Pacific region.
Plans call for rotating thousands of Marines through Japan, Australia, Guam and elsewhere so they can train alongside U.S. allies and respond quickly to humanitarian disasters or other contingencies.
Cutbacks caused by sequestration could limit the Corps' ability to do as much as it would like in that part of the world.
In his letter, Amos said that despite the fiscal challenges ahead, he is committed to preserving the Corps' status as a "911 Force." But maintaining such readiness will require sacrifices "in other areas," the commandant said, though he did not elaborate. A forthcoming video, to feature Amos and his top enlisted adviser, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett, will provide more details, he said.
In a message distributed throughout the Navy Department on Saturday, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the Marine Corps will stop enrolling personnel in the service's tuition assistance program, a popular benefit that has offset costs for thousands of Marines seeking their college degrees. It appears those currently enrolled in the TA program will be allowed to continue, though Marine officials could not immediately confirm that.
Neither the Marine Corps nor the Navy will screen for new pilots this month, according to Mabus' message. Additionally, vehicle and equipment maintenance will be slowed, and temporary civilian employees let go.
Sequestration will prompt the Marine Corps to furlough full-time civilian employees and derail construction projects at facilities around the world, according to an official planning document obtained last week by Marine Corps Times. The Corps' recruiting and advertising budgets would be slashed as well, it says.
Perhaps the biggest concern among rank-and-file Marines is whether the service will be forced to make additional personnel cuts. Currently, the Marine Corps is in the midst of an active-duty drawdown that will reduce its authorized end-strength from 202,100 to 182,100 by the end of 2016.
Military personnel cuts are exempt from sequestration this year, but top Marine officials have acknowledged it's possible that could change moving forward.
In announcing the current drawdown, Marine officials vowed to "keep faith" with Marines, meaning the service would aim to maximize its use of force-shaping measures that allow eligible personnel to leave the military voluntarily — on their own terms.
The commandant was clear he did not want to break contracts. Doing so, he has said, would be unfair to the troops and their families who've sacrificed greatly during the last decade-plus of combat.
Amos' letter does not address personnel numbers, but reiterates his pledge to do right by his Marines.
"While we are working hard to balance our myriad requirements," it states, "I want each of you to know that keeping faith with you and your families is a top priority of mine — I consider it a sacred responsibility."